Smolin, Sarvastivadins, and the Space Time Loaf

Sometime around 300 years after the Buddha, the greater sangha started settling into different sects (there is much debate about this timeline). These weren’t warring sects or anything. In fact, mostly it was just different flavors of dhamma arising in different locations. But they each did have distinct teachings. The largest and most influential sect for 500 years was the Sarvastivadins. Their most distinctive teaching was this: everything that exists, did exist, or will exists, exists right now and forever. Or as they would put it: all dhammas past, present, and future, exist. On the face of it, this seems very strange to us now. How is it possible even in the normal sense for something that is “in the future” to already exist? And for Buddhists in particular, how could it make sense that everything is impermanent, and yet all dhammas of the past still exist?

But actually for the Sarvastivadins, this idea was a way of grappling with kamma. Their line of reasoning went something like this:

  1. 1.) The present is impacted by past actions.
  2. 2.) But things only exist based on causes and conditions. As soon as the causes ceases, the result ceases.
  3. 3.) In order for past actions to impact the present, the must still exist. QED.

This logic works for the future as well.

  1. 1.) What we do now impacts the future.
  2. 2.) Again, things only exist as long as the causes and conditions exist.
  3. 3.) So in order for the present to impact the past, the future must already exist.

If your eyes are watering a bit at this mind-bending logic, then you are not alone. But consider this: this idea is not just some weird contortion of the dhamma from 2000 years ago. it is also the currently accepted interpretation of the Theory of Relativity. For Einstein, one implication of relativity is that one’s relative speed through space impacts our speed through time. This is how the twins thought experiments work. This is why Einstein thought that our perception that we pass through time is nothing but a persistent illusion. Instead, he thought of space-time as like a giant loaf. All things that have or will exist, already do exist. The illusion is that there is something special about the “present”. Ok, not precisely the Sarvastivadin view, but clearly very similar.

Of course, there are alternative ideas to both of these positions. First, the Sarvastivadins. Imagine for a moment that I push a ball. I push it for an instant, then let go. Of course the ball moves forward when I push it, but it doesn’t stop the instant I let go. It continues going forward until finally slowing down and stopping. Is this a violation of the Buddha’s dictum that when the cause or condition of something ceasing, then that thing ceases as well? Not at all. At first the ball moves forward because I pushed it. But it continues to move forward after I push because of momentum. What I have done in the past continues to have implications because of the “momentum” of kamma. This is actually completely common sense. If I dropped out of high school or treated my parents well or killed someone or ordained many years ago, I still feel the effects of those decisions. Duh, Sarvastivadins.

As for Einstein, I’m not up to the task of taking on one of the greatest scientists of all time, but Lee Smolin , a physicist specializing in quantum mechanics is giving it a go. See here for the details, but his basic thesis is that it is space, not time that is the conditioned phenomena. Time, for him, “really” exists. Duh, Einstein.

I’m kidding, of course. I don’t know if Einstein’s interpretation is superior or Smolin. But I do know that it makes little sense to me to practice as though everything that will happen already exists in some sense. In order for kamma, in order for PRACTICE, indeed in order for anything to make sense, my choices have to be meaningful. How could one choose to believe that their choices don’t matter?

Indeed, the takeaway for me is that this kind of philosophizing can be dangerous. It’s not that there’s anything wrong with philosophy or science or theology per se, but that certain kinds of conclusions can lead one to dark and unhelpful places.

If you really believe that because of an armchair philosophy or popular science ideas that your actions in this world are meaningless, my advice is to get a new philosophy, quick. Have you considered Buddhism?


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